Enhancing the E-book Business
In late 2007, HarperCollins claimed to have published the first-ever e-book to include video. That e-book title, "Lady Amelia's Secret Lover," featured six embedded videos of the book's author, Victoria Alexander, sharing her insights into the story's plot details and characters. At the time, the trade publisher likened the videos to "extras" on DVDs.
As YouTube and the pop-culture phenomenon known as the "viral video" continued to explode, more and more publishers experimented with ways to leverage this digital medium to both promote and enhance books. For example, video book trailers and author videos became more and more utilized as marketing tools.
It seemed most publishers forging into the e-book space, however, still were primarily focused on simply converting their text into digital versions—perhaps, in part, because of the limitations of e-reading technologies with relatively small, black-and-white screens that didn't lend themselves to colorful or complex digital fireworks. As recently as last summer, 49 percent of readers who responded to a Book Business e-book survey indicated that they do not produce enhanced e-books. (Thirty-six percent indicated that they do not publish any e-books.)
Introducing the 'Vook' Concept
While many publishers have yet to experiment with enhanced e-books, Brad Inman founded an entire company based on this digital product, and coined a new term in the process: "vook," described by Inman's company as "a new innovation in reading that blends a well-written book, high-quality video and the power of the Internet into a single, complete story."
Prior to Vook, Inman had founded TurnHere, an online video production and distribution house. "Brad had been in New York [for TurnHere] doing a bunch of author profiles and meeting people in publishing … and he saw an opportunity," explains Matthew Cavnar, Vook's head of acquisitions. "Here's a chance to light up all that gray matter, light up all that content, and do something fun and exciting … really bring all these opportunities that technology presents to digital text."
Vook officially launched in September 2009 with four vooks it produced in partnership with Simon & Schuster—two fiction titles (Jude Deveraux's "Promises" and Richard Doetsch's "Embassy"), an exercise title (Pete Cerqua's "The 90-Second Fitness Solution") and a self-help title (Narine Nikogosian's "Return to Beauty"). The mix of genres was intentional, says Cavnar, in order to test what types of books would work well in this format.
Shortly thereafter, the new company partnered with the now-defunct HarperCollins imprint, HarperStudio, to publish a vook of entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk's "Crush It!"—"and that just really took off," says Cavnar. "That … demonstrated to us that there's an audience for … what we're [creating]; this is an opportunity here. A lot of [the vooks are] centered around strong personalities [and] people who the audience wants to connect with more closely. With Gary, the video really brought you into his life and showed you the man behind the book. It got you closer."
"Gary shares the Vook vision. He understands that this new media approach is the best way to deliver his story to fans and readers," said Inman at the time of the "Crush It!" release.
Finding What Works
Since its initial launch, Vook has published more than 100 titles—some in partnership with publishers, some directly with authors, and about 20 original titles that it acquired and produced on its own. According to Cavnar, it is the largest enhanced publisher currently in Apple's iBookstore, with more than 70 titles. "We've got more titles in the iBookstore that are enhanced than the six big publishers combined," he says.
Vooks are available to consumers via applications for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch; the Amazon Kindle application; and a web-based application that facilitates reading on your computer. They soon will be available on Barnes & Noble's Nook application as well as on the Android platform. With so many titles now under its e-belt, Vook has developed an understanding of what works in this format and what doesn't. "Health and fitness is a huge home run for us," says Cavnar, pointing to the ability to demonstrate exercises via videos. "Our pilates title just exploded. We can't stop selling those. … We've got a 'Yoga in Bed' title that's also been an incredible seller."
One of Vook's original titles, Pete Cerqua's "The 90-Second Fitness Solution," "sells every single day," he adds. "You're looking at this limited device. It's a big market, but still, it's not like being in a [physical] bookstore. … The fact that the 'long tail' for guys like Pete is so compelling, and it keeps selling units every single day without hesitation—you just know there's something there."
Other genres that have translated well into vooks include how-to, motivational and history titles, says Cavnar. Popular titles in the latter category for Vook include "Reckless Road: Guns N' Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction," about the early days of the rock band, and "JFK: 50 Days," about the former president, which it released with NBC News and Perseus. "JFK: 50 Days" was the No. 1 paid book app on the iPad for about two-and-a-half weeks following its release.
"If I'm reading a bio of JFK and they're talking about his rhetorical style, it's great to read about, but then to actually see him talk right in front of you … without losing any sort of ease of transition with the text—that's unbeatable. I don't have to go to my computer to watch it on YouTube; it's right there," he says.
As far as what types of titles haven't been as successful: "We don't do a lot of fiction," notes Cavnar.
Establishing Itself as a Publisher
Vook considers itself a publisher and a publishing partner—"we're not looking to set ourselves up as a vendor," says Cavnar. Its partnerships typically include a split of the royalties and a sharing of the back-end. "We're not going out there trying to get a one-time fee to do this. We're looking to be a long-term player with our partners … ," he adds.
When publishers partner with Vook—and more than 20 have, so far—"We basically say, 'Bring us what you have, and we'll find a way to make it work,' " Cavnar continues, noting that Vook handles video creation, if needed (some publishers/authors already have video); the creative treatment of the vook; and collaboration with the author, as well as the distribution and marketing.
"We really want to find [partners] who want to go out there with us and make a big splash out of it. And it doesn't matter if they're a small company in Alaska, or if they're one of the big six [publishers]," says Cavnar. "We want to work with people who believe in the future of this medium."
Another way that Vook has established itself as a publisher is with the launch of its series of original titles, which Cavnar refers to as "vook video guides"—how-to vooks on topics ranging from car maintenance to quilting. "They're selling pretty well," he says. "The thing is, we can keep the budget on them really low, and we only need to sell about 450 copies before we make back our expenses and start earning a profit."
The original titles are doing well enough that Cavnar says Vook will do "hundreds" more in 2011.
A challenge for any application developer is to make your particular app stand out among the masses in the app stores and easily discoverable by the consumer. As previously mentioned, Vook handles the marketing of all its products, even those produced with partners. It has found success, says Cavnar, with creating a "lite" version of every application that includes three chapters of that particular title for free. "When we release [a lite version], you'll see sales just double the day it comes out because everyone downloads the free [version], they try it out and think, 'Oh, this is great,' and they buy the complete version," he continues. "It's a great way to drive enthusiasm for a title."
Vooks also now have social networking capabilities built in that allow users to share notes and comments about a particular title via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter—"[that way], you build in app marketing; you use the product … to market itself," says Cavnar.
Right now, he continues, the company also is pushing to get book-review sections in the main media outlets for vooks and vook-like products: "[We] send out and make sure our titles are accessed by reviewers, so they can write [about them] and form a marketplace for them."
One of Vook's biggest marketing coos so far was when Anne Rice's vook, "The Master of Rampling Gate," received a mention on one of the Internet's most heavily trafficked blogs, PerezHilton.com. In a Feb. 10, 2010 post, Hilton blogged, "Anne Rice, author of 'Interview With a Vampire' and other favorite vampire tales is taking her literature to the next level: video books!"
"Perez Hilton today is like The New York Times front page," says Cavnar. "The fact that doing a vook got [Anne Rice] that kind of noise is such an asset to an author."
'Mother Vook' and the Future
While Cavnar describes Vook as being in "start-up mode"—"it's just a handful of people working night and day to create this new medium"—he also details big plans for the future. While it use to take about two months to produce one vook, now it can take as little as a day, thanks to a technology back-end created in-house that the company refers to as the "Mother Vook."
"The key is Mother Vook," he says. "We've got it down to basically a data-entry process.
"Eventually, we'll be able to have the Mother Vook terminal and software in the publisher's office, so they can create their own enhanced titles," Cavnar continues about the company's long-term plans.
In terms of increasing consumer awareness and adoption of vooks, Cavnar believes the slew of new e-reading devices and tablets are doing the job for them. "[Apple CEO] Steve Jobs standing up and holding the iPad [when the product launched] probably did more to explain the concept of what we do than we've ever done, and moments like that aren't going to stop," he says. "It's like that transition when computers came in and typewriters went out. In retrospect, it seems like overnight suddenly everyone had a computer. I'm not saying that everyone is going to have a digital book, but this kind of way of consuming media—it's already here, and it's only going to continue. … The more you do, and the more fun they are to use, the more demand there's going to be."
He likens the growth of Vook to hanging on to a rocket ship. "I've got e-mails coming in at a rate of one a minute … and that's just people who are trying to be a part of us," Cavnar says. BB